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The Music Of The Darker Streets

April 2024
6min read

It’s probably always a mistake to think of decades in clichés: the nineties weren’t especially gay; for most people, the twenties didn’t roar much. And I suppose the fifties were nowhere near so bland as they once appeared to us, looking back from the sixties.

Still, things did seem pretty calm then. I spent most of the early fifties as a teen-ager in Hyde Park, a pleasant, shady, largely white neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side that, then as now, huddled in the shadow of the Gothic citadel that is the University of Chicago campus. Hyde Park’s boundaries were Lake Michigan to the east; the Midway to the South, a grassy, treeless, noman’s-land left behind when swamps were drained to make way for the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893; and on the west, a wide, busy street called Cottage Grove. We knew very little about the black Chicagoans who lived on the shady streets, only slightly shabbier than ours, that stretched for miles beyond Hyde Park’s inland boundaries.

It was thought best that we stay close to home.

The popular music to which we listened was homey too. On Saturday evenings my friends and I watched “Your Hit Parade,” a television program on which, week after week after week, a team of distinctly unthreatening white singers—one was named Snooky—did their peppy best to breathe life into the same songs about pyramids along the Nile and loving one another a bushel and a peck.

I think it’s safe to say that this was not a distinguished era in the history of popular music—and it is no accident that when the Smithsonian Institution recently issued American Popular Song , a scholarly compendium of 110 of Tin Pan Alley’s finest tunes in definitive performances, its compilers thought it best to stop in the mid-fifties.

But if we did not ourselves dare move much beyond our own neighborhood, the radio brought the music of those darker streets into our bedrooms. Some of it was sacred—on Sundays the radio dial was filled with the fervent sounds of black gospel, broadcast live from half a dozen local churches. But most of it was distinctly secular, rhythm and blues—it had only recently stopped being called “race music”—that dealt with the same subjects about which Snooky and his chums sang, but a good deal more directly.

And all of it seemed raw, ardent, unabashed, above all, compelling—unlike anything most of us had ever heard before. (It’s hard to imagine now how alien even the most genteel black music then seemed to some middle-class whites. One contemporary of mine remembers her father, otherwise the gentlest and most tolerant of men, insisting that the radio be turned off whenever Nat King Cole began to sing: to him, even that silky voice seemed unsettling.)

Some of us couldn’t get enough of it, though, and a few even tried to seek it out in person.

One Saturday evening a high school friend and I borrowed his father’s car, actually ventured beyond Hyde Park’s western edge, and parked behind the Pershing Lounge, a small, dark, smoky club in the cellar of an all-black hotel. (I no longer remember where we told our parents we were going, or for that matter how we knew where the Pershing Lounge was.)

The featured attraction that evening was Big Maybelle, a rhythm-and-blues veteran with an enormous, raucous voice. We got there early—very early—and, dressed in our best wide-shouldered sports jackets, were shown to a ringside table by a genuinely astonished hostess, ordered Cokes (we were too young for anything stronger and probably too young even legally to enter the club), and were then stared at steadily and with varying degrees of bemusement and hostility for nearly two hours until we had drunk up our allowances without a sign of the star. Finally, unable to stretch either the drinks or our funds any further, we paid the bill and started up the narrow steps to the street.

We found them suddenly filled: Big Maybelle, in a glittering gold wig and white satin gown, had chosen that moment to make her way down the staircase, nudging the wall on either side. She was as surprised to see us scurrying backward to get out of her way as we were awed by her size and presence. But as she passed us, breathing hard, on her way to the Lilliputian bandstand on which she was supposed to fit along with piano, bass, and drums, she laughed aloud at the incongruity of our being there, and shouted, “Good-night, white boys!” That was as close as we then dared get to the real thing, but we kept listening.

Big Maybelle is not represented on the mammoth, evocative new collection, Atlantic Rhythm & Blues 1947–1974 —she recorded for other, smaller labels—but scores of her contemporaries are to be found among the 186 selections on its fourteen disks.

Listening to these records again after so many years, 1 was struck by how comfortingly familiar they seem now, how odd my own children and the children of my friends would think it that this kind of music could ever have been thought outlandish in homes like theirs.

The story of Atlantic Records is the stuff for which the phrase “only in America” seems unavoidable. Its founders, in 1947, were Herb Abramson, a veteran artist and repertoire man, and Ahmet Ertegun, the son of a former Turkish ambassador to the United States. And some of its early artists were black high school kids who perfected their rich harmonies in the echoing, tiled washrooms of bigcity high schools. There were plenty of other labels appealing to the same audience at the same time, but Atlantic somehow managed to develop a small but shrewdly chosen roster of performers who consistently produced memorable music, music that increasingly appealed to white listeners as well as black ones.

In any giant assemblage like this one, there are bound to be a fair number of clinkers: nothing withers faster than a song about a brand-new dance; several cuts demonstrate conclusively that white rock-and-rollers had no monopoly on teen-aged bathos; after a while some of the recordings—an astonishing number of which were done by the same two men, Ahmet Ertegun and his fellow producer Jerry Wexler—begin to sound as if they were done by the same two men.

But the average of Atlantic’s output remains remarkably high. So does its staying power. If you heard the best of these tunes, as I did, when they were first played on the radio, you will find that every note—sometimes every syllable—has somehow been retained.

The material includes everything from simple, gritty songs about life and love in those parts of the city we rarely saw—“Up on the Roof,” “Under the Boardwalk”—to sentimental standards such as “Try a Little Tenderness,” transformed through the pyrotechnics of Otis Redding into something infinitely more complex and impassioned than its composers ever imagined.

It was the Atlantic performers who made the difference. There were all the groups with their pseudo-elegant names—the Capitols, Cardinals, Chords, Coasters, Clovers, Drifters, Spinners—as well as brilliant individual singers like La Vern Baker and Ruth Brown, Joe Tex and Roberta Flack, Little Esther Phillips and Big Joe Turner, the massive former Kansas City bouncer, whose hits, like “Shake, Rattle, and Roll,” were stolen, nearly note by note, to make big white stars still bigger. (That sort of artistic larceny, begun at the birth of the race-record industry around 1920, continues unabated; new versions of old Atlantic hits will presumably still be recorded by the next two or three generations of would-be recording stars.)

It had only recently stopped being called “race music,” and it seemed raw, ardent, and compelling.

And the collection includes some of the finest recordings by two artists, who, if America conferred the title of National Living Treasure, as Japan does, should surely be among the earliest qualifiers—Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin.

Charles embodies within himself two great musical traditions, gospel and the blues, each stretching back to slavery and beyond; and everything he sings is illuminated by their special melancholy and joy. But he is also a distinctive artist, and he manages to make each song—he has now recorded more than sixty albums of them—unmistakably his own. Even melodies as weary as “You Are My Sunshine,” “My Bonny Lies over the Ocean,” and “America” are somehow resuscitated when he applies to them his rough, anguished, infinitely flexible voice, his mysterious ability to alter the beat, shift the melody, suggest new meanings for old lyrics.

His early Atlantic work still astonishes; ten of his sly but churchly anthems have been included, among them “What’d I Say,” “I Got a Woman,” “Let the Good Times Roll,” and “Hallelujah, I Love Her So.”

Aretha Franklin, too, draws directly upon both the blues and the Baptist church—her father, the late Reverend C. L. Franklin, was a spellbinding Detroit preacher; she began singing in his choir and has recorded an extraordinary gospel album, Amazing Grace , also for Atlantic. But it is the gloriously profane side of her singing that is the focus here; few trained singers can match either the power of her voice or her mastery over it; fewer still can equal the emotional intensity of her performances of songs like “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.”

The songs that make up this big set provided much of the background music for the turbulence that followed the fifties; civil rights marchers sang and danced to them; so did black and white troops in Vietnam, as well as the people back home who protested their presence there. And so did the rest of us, who otherwise mostly looked on.

It’s easy to overemphasize the political and sociological importance of any art. Too many students of what is grandly called “popular history” regularly fall into that trap; novelty tunes like, say, “Yakety Yak (Don’t Talk Back)” or “Charlie Brown (He’s a Clown),” included here, both by the Coasters, really can’t bear the weight of very much professorial solemnity, and music has only limited powers to soothe—or incite—anything.

Cottage Grove and the Midway moat still divide Hyde Park from its neighbors, after all, much as they did thirty years ago. And in many ways the differences between the two worlds have deepened.

Yet the fact that Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin and the best of their black contemporaries now routinely speak to those who live on both sides of the nation’s stubborn urban deadlines must surely someday count for something.

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